Speaking with Tongues


Introduction: An Affirmation of Faith

Three amazing, unique, authentic miraculous phenomena occur conspicuously in the Gospels, the Acts and the Pauline letters: glossolalia or speaking with tongues (1)(2), demon possession with exorcism (3), and the gift of miraculous healing. All were classed as miraculous gifts or special favors, spiritual powers bestowed upon selected men. In the author’s opinion these three, as well as several other historical. divinely appointed events (including the incarnation, Christ’s miracles, Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, ascension and Pentecost) are genuine events unique to that era.

In this writer’s opinion the era in which our Lord and Savior walked upon earth, and the apostolic age in which His church was gaining a foothold among the nations, was one continuous era of tremendous demonic resistance in the hearts and minds of men to the acceptance of the gospel. Miraculous gifts, unique powers granted to men were omnipotent God’s method of fighting demonic powers in that era.

We have the strongest evidence possible on which we base the above “credo,” “I believe.” We have first of all faith (Heb. 11:1. “Now faith is—the evidence”.) We have the very words and the very deeds of Christ Himself, His “biography” in the Gospels. And we have the words which His commissioned agents penned, His “eye-witnesses” of that brief era. That period lasted the span of the life of a man, the man John, who outlived all the other apostles. These testimonies are enough for me as to authenticity and credibility.

Having classified glossolalia among the “unique” phenomena of one specific age of time, I hasten to add that as a Christian, a medical man, a psychiatrist, a common sense scientist, I hold a very different view of later instances of these same three phenomena mentioned in my opening sentence, and especially as to glossolalia occurring from the close of the Pauline era to this year of our Lord, 1964.

Spirit-filled Glossolalia and Its Beginning Decline

There arc two literary gems regarding genuine miraculous glossolalia in the scriptures. The first is the Pentecost account, given in Acts 2:4–21. Pentecost was an amazing event with only one possible interpretation, namely, that unlearned men spoke miraculously in some fourteen different languages not their own, unknown to themselves yet clearly understood as authentic language by foreigners who spoke that language (1 and 2). The second gem is what Cutten refers to as “Paul’s damning glossolalia by faint praise when writing to the Corinthian church.” (4) This gem is found in I Corinthians 14, the entire chapter. The other New Testament references to glossolalia are few and not as important; namely, Mark 16:17, Acts 10:44–46, Acts 19:6, I Corinthians 12:10, 28–30, and I Corinthians 13:1 and 8.

Already in Paul’s lifetime, according to the fourteenth chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians, glossolalia was falling into disrepute. The scene pictured there seems to be one of almost bedlam. Five types of glossolalists are described in that chapter. There is first of all the glossolalist who is speaking in an “unknown tongue,”—in a language known neither to himself nor to anyone else,—who claims he is speaking “not to men but to God.” As long as God understands him, nothing else matters. “He speaketh mysteries,” intelligible to God.

Beyond a doubt, some in this group were genuine glossolalists. But some were no doubt spurious. How can we prove or disprove their assertion that even God understands them? Both this genuine and this spurious glossolalia was humanly worthless to his fellow men. “Edifying himself”, says Paul. And of course, it cannot be interpreted. How could it be? It is not language. It is not communication with men. Only one person on earth speaks that language, and he can’t interpret it. (vs. 1 to 4).

In addition to the genuine and the spurious groups mentioned, there is another glossolalist (vs. 6) slightly different from the two mentioned. Type 3 himself says: “Now I will interpret my own unknown utterances.” He does so. The interpretation often seems to be rather trivial, “much ado about nothing”, if verses 6 to 11 are any indication. Paul says that if even he himself spoke with tongues like that “what shall I profit you?”, unless there is with it “revelation, knowledge, prophesying and doctrine.” The verses imply that these are absent in that man’s strange discourse. Such speech is a “trumpet giving an uncertain sound.” It is as words not “easy to be understood, as speaking into the air” (vs. 8, 9). “Five words uttered” by Paul, “with understanding” were better than “ten thousand in an unknown tongue.” (vs. 19).

The fourth type requires an interpreter who says; “He doesn’t know what he has been saying, but I can interpret it for you.” In some cases this was no doubt actual interpretation of a genuine foreign language. But if the glossolalist was speaking in an unknown tongue, a language that was not a known language, it would require now also a miraculous gift of interpretation on the part of the interpreter, a “miracle a deux.” Barring a genuine miracle, such interpretation is obviously open to contamination, error, the use of a vivid imagination and outright fraud.

The fifth type might be called “group glossolalia.” Three or four glossolalists, each in a different unknown tongue, were simultaneously holding forth. Outsiders looked on and commented, “Ye are mad.” (vs. 22 ). They suggest this was more like a madhouse than a church. It is not surprising that Paul advises, it is better to “keep silence” ( vs. 28). “God is not the author of confusion” (vs. 33) and “Let all things be done decently and in order.” (Vs. 40 ) Paul therefore laid down some glossolalia rules. (20)

It is evident from I Corinthians, chapter 14, that glossolalia was rapidly becoming the least of all the spiritual gifts. The gift of tongues, possessed alone without faith, hope and love, became sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. It is nothing, profits nothing, will cease. Even Pentecostal glossolalia, using genuine foreign languages, or glossolalia at its best, was a miraculous phenomenon of perhaps one day’s grant to the individual so blessed. There is no evidence to suggest it enabled him to be a foreign missionary without “language study”.( 19 )

Modem glossolalia is in an entirely different category from Pentecost glossolalia and true glossolalia in the gospel age and the Pauline age. It is not so much that I do not believe that God could not act along these same lines today, for I do not limit the omnipotence of God. But for several reasons unknown to us, if we look at what passes for glossolalia in our modern age, it would seem that God very possibly does not choose to act thus through the miraculous in these days. And finally, these manifestations, as they appear today, can be physiologically and psychologically explained.


Physiological Considerations Relating to Glossolalia

It would be a simple matter, at this point, to omit the physiological aspects and proceed to the psychological; in fact, to condense the psychological also, and write glossolalia off as ecstasy, catalepsy, mass hysteria, a psychological state in which the consciously controlling apparatus of the mind is not dominant, a state in which the primitive reactions and their way to the surface, a state in which speech continues after thought is exhausted and a series of meaningless syllables results (4). But having done this, have we really explained anything? Call it dissociation of consciousness (21), automatic speech, an automatism, suggestion, self-hypnotism, clogging of the upper centers, or mere hysterical gibberish, and what have we explained?

True glossolalia, in which the use of an identifiable language occurs, a language previously not spoken by the person who is now “with tongues,” is extremely rare. Mosiman (4) studied many such supposed cases and found not one to be authentic. Robert L. Dean, a contemporary psychologist (17) comes to the same conclusion. William James,

gives the remarkable case of a woman who could neither read nor write but who in the delirium of fever raved in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, all of which was traced to her haVing worked in the home of a very scholarly pastor who read aloud for many years (5). Even if this could be accepted as authentic, it would have to be written off as glossolalia due to brain pathology, brain fever. It would fall in the category of disturbed brain tissue, cases which Wilder Penfield describes (11). Having described it as brain pathology, have we satisfied anyone at all who is really asking, like Mary of old, “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34, Moffatt).

I warn you, that although physiology and psychology have some answers, and many strides forward have been made recently, “there remaineth yet very much land to be possessed!” Further, personally I am no expert in the field of neura-physiology. Experts could tell you this part of our problem much more adequately than I. My references to scholars in this field will have to suffice (references 6 to 14) to supplement what I am going to explain herewith.

Glossolalia makes use of the brain. The brain is not the “mind” but is the physical organ which “mind” uses to express the person. A person expresses himself in speaking, writing, acting (behavior), facial expression (love, anger, etc.), emotions and other means, all of which must originate from the brain. To understand the “mind” you would have to know the anatomy of the brain (microscopic and macroscopic), its physiology, its pathology, its neurone circuits, its behavior (normally, abnormally and while under surgery). You would have to understand its learning process, its memory, its psychological working mechanisms, its totality. If you are finding this dull, just skip it. I warn you, harder things are coming.

Cybernetics ond Glossolalia

A new science has been formulated recently called cybernetics. (6). It is that branch of technology which deals with the complicated “nervous systems” of the complicated machines that have recently been devised; automatic machines, tele-communication devices, high speed computers, mechanical brains, “giant brains.” Formerly, we could truly say: “Living things are distinguished from non-living (machines) by the fact that the living are goal-directed.” Today machines also are goal-directed, solve problems, can “multiply more than 10,000 pairs of ten digit numbers in a single second,” something which no man can do. (7) (4).

Now we are not here to glorify a man-made machine above a God-made man! Man made that machine what it is! Man must feed into it information. Man must build into it an intricate device to hold information (memory). The feeding of information is like its sensory nervous system. Man must build into it devices that control (intellect, will) the steps in the acting-out process toward the goal (behavior). Man must build into it a master control of all the successive parts of the operation in proper sequence (central nervous system). Man must build into it a device by which the machine communicates its output or its answers to man (peripheral nervous system, activity, speaking, reaching goals). (7).

It has been said: “The brain is like a computing machine.” Dr. Wanen McCullough adds: “But there is no computing machine like the brain.” (8). Gerhardt Von Bonin, M.D., adds: “A computing machine can essentially only execute a program that is given to it by a human brain, but the human brain is able to program its own activity.” (6) (9).

Cybernetics can be very useful to us here in understanding glossolalia. If these machines “with intelligence”, (one part of which is a “servomechanism” making the machine “directed toward a goal”), behave in some ways like living beings, then we can learn from these machines, which man himself has made, how we behave. (6)

Further, the most complicated computer in existence is a mere toy compared with the human brain. These “mechanical brains” may have built into them a total of perhaps as many as fifty thousand tubes and may store up all the information you might closely type on fifteen pages, let us say. But the human brain has ten billion tubes. It can store in its memory an almost infinite amount of material, is self-feeding, self-repairing, self-programming, and is housed inside one ordinary skulL To duplicate it by a machine, says McCullough, one such machine of ten billion tubes, would require a building as large as the Empire State building, would take all the power Niagara Falls could supply by turbines to run it electrically, and would require all the water of Niagara River to cool it. (8). The human brain has been called “the most complex structure we know in the universe.”

If we now turn to the human memory organ, “the Tape Recorder in your brain” (10) as John Pfeiffer calls it, we find a storehouse of remembered experience that is simply astounding. Every thing we experienced, or have seen, heard, read about, felt, or reacted emotionally to, is stored. there, awaiting the correct cue to be released. These correspond to the input or the things “fed” into a computer.

Dr. Wilder Penfield, neurosurgeon of Toronto, Canada, tells how he discovered the area of the brain which is the chief memory center, while doing brain surgery, in his memorable monograph (11). John Pfeiffer says enough material is stored in each person’s brain, or can be stored as facts, to fin one hundred forty million issues of Coronet. (8)

Dr. Wilder Penfield touched certain areas of the exposed, cut brain surface with an electrode carrying a weak current during surgery on adults under local anesthesia (for the brain tissue itself is insensitive to pain). At once the subject said: “I see something, I hear something. It is something I have not seen or heard for years. I am a child, I am in my mother’s kitchen. My mother says to my brother: ‘John, you have your coat on backwards.’” Penfield returned to the same area a bit later. Again, like a phonograph playing in the same groove, the patient recited the same scene and the identical words. Similar results were obtained on other patients.

Some physiologists suppose that memory is like (a) photography. Others think it is like (b} a punch card system in a computer. Most likely memory consists of some specific change, some (c) imprint on the molecules in the brain cells in the memory areas. (7). There must also be (d) a filing system of the memory engrams and (e) an electrical method of racing among the files at the speed of electricity to produce the required embedded material at instant notice. Memory is a legion of reverberating chains of closed loops, not only storing the fact but recalling the fact to us, and reliving the fact, so that we say: “I saw this, I said this, this is my previous experience.”

Out Of “Nothing” Comes “Nothing” Except “Humanly-Manufactured Babbling”

Obviously nothing can come out of each individual brain that was not once previously stored there. Materials stored may be altered, fragmented, confused, distorted but cannot be humanly created. Also, it is obvious that language, (be it Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Hindustani, Hausa, and so forth) which comes out as language in glossolalia, must have been introduced somehow in that person’s life. Even if that person was not conscious he 01′ she had heard those words, or that a memory engram was being recorded, these had nevertheless been previously deposited there. This will explain the very few cases of modem genuine glossolalia, if there are any.

As an educator very ungrammatically once said concerning teaching: “You can’t no more teach what you don’t know, than you can come from where you ain’t been;” so with glossolalia: “You can’t no more speak (output) a language (like Greek) of which your memory has no deposits (or input) than you could come from Greece where you ain’t never yet been!” It is anatomically, physiologically and psychologically impossible. It is contrary to the laws of the universe. The only exception would be in cases in which God was interposing by means of the miraculous. Present day glossolalists who would claim such repetitious miraculous intervention through their minds day after day, with such insignificant revelations as are being produced today are, it would seem, misguided or are presumptuous. It is like the Himalayan Mountain in obstetrical labor and producing a mouse!

McCullough says: “It is easy to understand how a brain can go wrong. That it ever really can function rightly is almost unbelievable.” (8) If you overload a computing machine it develops neurotic symptoms. Computer operators state that even the machine can act like it is “possessed of demons” with ideas and purposes of its own. (8). They call these demons “gremlins.” Instead of a check for five dollars the machine may issue a check for five trillion dollars, or instead of an orderly output it may spew out nonsense if it is pushed beyond its limits.

Is it then strange that the intricate human brain should go wrong, should rattle off unintelligible nonsense syllables, broken phrases, pseudo language? Mechanically, this is very possible. However, it is also possible for it to utter intelligent discourse. This it does, from memory, daily. Have you ever read St. Augustine’s rhapsody on the wonder of the memory, a panegyric of praise to God for memory? (15).

Returning to glossolalia, if we now add to the anatomico-physiological things that can function correctly or that can go wrong,—that can account for “speaking in unknown tongues” (authentic or spurious)—if we now add the many psychological factors that enter into glossolalia, to which we shall next turn our attention, it is evident we must not hastily conclude: “This is miraculous, a work of God!” ‘“By their fruits ye shall know them.” May not this “speaking with tongues” be the product of abnormal psychology? We shall consider the psychological implications in another issue.


1. David Thomas: Acts Of The Apostles, Commentary, pp. 27, 28, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Mich. 1956.

2. David Brown: Critical and Experimental Commentary, (Jamieson Faussett and Brown), Vol. 6, p. 10. Eerdmans Company, Grand Rapids, Mich. 1945.

3. Norvel Geldenhuys: Demon Possession, Comments on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary of the New Testament, p. 174.

4. George Barton Cutten, Ph.D., D.O., “Speaking With Tongues”, The Yale University Press. New Haven, Connecticut. 1921.

5. William James, Ph.D. Principles of Psychology, p. 681, Henry Holt & Co., New York 1918.

6. Anapol Rapoport; Mathematics and Cybernetics; in American Handbook of Psychiatry, Vol. 2, chapter 87, pp. 1743–1751, Basic Books, New York, 1959.

7. John Pfeiffer, The Human Brain Harper & Brothers, New York.

8. Warren S. McCulloch, M.D., The Brain As A ComputiDg Machine; Electrical Engineering, June 1949.

9. Gerhardt Von Bonin, M.D., Arehives of Neurology and Psychiatry, 67: Feb. 1954 p. 144.

10. John pfeiffer: The“ tape Recorder” In Your Brain; Coronet Magazine. Sept. 1958, pp. 57–60.

11. Wilder Penfield, M.D.: Memory Mechanisms: in Symposium on Brain and Mind. Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, 67: Feb. 1952.

12. Peter Laslett, Editor: The Physical Basis of Mind: (B.B.C. series of Broadcasts): Basil Blackwell, Publishers, Oxford, England. 1950.

13. J. Z. Young, M.A., F.R.S.: Doubt and Certainty In Science: Oxford University Pres., Amen House, London, E.CA, 1950.

14. E . V. “Ted” Crane : My Mind And I. The Christopher Publishing House, Boston, Mass., 1957.

15. St. Augustine: Confessions. Book X, par. 7–17.

16. McCandlish Phillips: “And There Appeared To Them Tongues Of Fire”, Saturday Evening Posi. May 16, 1964, pp. 31-40.

17. Robert L. Dean, Ph.D., Strange Tongues. S. K. & F. Psychiatric Reporter, May.June 1964, Number 14, pp. 15, 16, 17, Smoth, Kline & French Laboratories, Philadelphia, Pa.

18. Alcmnder Mackie: The Cift of Tongues, A Study Of Pathologic Aspects Of Christianity, Ceorge H. Doran Company, 1921.

19. Frank Fatrell: Outburst of Tongues: The New Penetration: Christianity Today, Vol. VII, number 24, Sept. 13, 1963, Washington, D.C.

20. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1960 Edition: “Glossolalia”, vol. 22:282. “Language”, Vol. 13:696–699.

21. James N. Lapsley and John H. Simpson: Speaking in Tongues: Pastoral Psychology, Manhasset, N.Y., May 1964 and September 1964 issues.